'Those who take on the Holocaust should be ready for trouble'

On January 27, 1945, Soviet troops entered the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, which had recently been abandoned by the Nazis. Though clumsy attempts had been made to disguise its purpose, the appalling scale of the horrors committed on the site quickly became clear – it was a death factory, a production line of misery that had claimed over a million lives, most of them Jewish. Since the early 2000s, January 27 has been International Holocaust Memorial Day.

Newsreel footage, mainly taken at Bergen-Belsen in the spring of 1945, shocked cinema audiences around the world, so much so that for several decades the Holocaust became cinema’s elephant in the corner, the huge subject deemed too awful to be explored. And those film-makers who ultimately did lift the lid often faced bitter criticism from the Holocaust’s gatekeepers.

For this is a tricky subject, as Irish author John Boyne recently discovered to his cost. His book The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas was made into a middling film in 2008, but when he criticised the recent spate of death camp-themed novels like The Librarian Of Auschwitz and The Tattooist Of Auschwitz, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Holocaust Memorial museum responded sharply. Boyne’s own book ought to be avoided, they said, by anyone “who studies or teaches the history of the Holocaust”. The death camps are a charged topic and any writer or film-maker who takes them on ought to be ready for trouble.

Hollywood’s early attempts to do so were polite, if not downright sanitised. George Stevens had a critical hit in 1959 with The Diary Of Anne Frank, a lush melodrama which tugged at the heartstrings as it spun out the touching story of the lively Jewish family hiding out in an Amsterdam attic. But it drew a polite veil over what happened to young Anne when the Nazis eventually got their hands on her. The real Anne died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen.

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Politeness was the order of the day too in Judgment At Nuremberg (1961), another Oscar-winning Hollywood blockbuster that was not, however, without merit. Spencer Tracy played an American judge at the Nuremberg Trials who is trying to get to the bottom of a great mystery: how one of Europe’s most distinguished civilisations descended into such unconscionable barbarity. Burt Lancaster, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, Marlene Dietrich – this film was packed with heavyweight actors, who engaged in much courtroom band-standing. But the crimes themselves, and the camps, were too awful to merit close inspection.

Sidney Lumet’s Pawnbroker (1964) was the first American film to tackle the reality of the death camps head on, and did so through the troubled recollections of a survivor. Rod Steiger (never better) played Sol Nazerman, a middle-aged Jewish immigrant who runs a pawnshop in a rough east Harlem neighbourhood.

Once, Sol was a college professor, but his life was shattered by incarceration in a concentration camp, where he saw his wife raped and his son die. Not surprisingly, he’s an angry misanthrope, who watches with grim amusement as order in the ghetto collapses around him. Its style might be somewhat dated, but The Pawnbroker is a very fine film.

In many ways, Marathon Man (1976) was a conventional thriller, a slick drama starring Dustin Hoffman as a history student who gets mixed up in the search for a missing stash of diamonds. But those diamonds belonged to a war criminal, Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier, giving it socks), who robbed them from Jewish victims and has come out of hiding to retrieve them in New York. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, a Jewish passer-by recognises Szell as her former tormentor and stands in the street with her mouth open, mutely pointing. Imagine what that would have felt like.

Directors and writers were getting braver, and in 1978 CBS aired the four-part mini-series Holocaust, which starred Meryl Streep and dramatised the so-called ‘final solution’. It was no doubt well-intentioned, but again sanitised the grim realities of life in the concentration camps, whose inmates looked suspiciously tanned and well-fed.

Streep found a better vehicle in Sophie’s Choice, Alan J. Pakula’s showy but moving adaptation of William Styron’s novel. She played Sophie, a Polish immigrant at the centre of a volatile love triangle in 1940s Brooklyn. Sophie seems to have a death-wish, and late on we discover that at Auschwitz she was forced to choose which of her two children would live, and which would die.

Released in 1985, but made almost a decade earlier, the Russian film Come And See unflinchingly explored the genesis of the gas chambers in the genocide committed by SS units during the Nazi occupation of Belarus. Little seen, it’s a harrowing, surreal, compelling anti-war film.

The most famous Holocaust film of all, of course, is Schindler’s List. Steven Spielberg brought a big budget and a heavy sense of responsibility to his production, which was based on a novel by Thomas Keneally and the true story of Oskar Schindler, a Sudeten-German businessman and Nazi Party member who saved the lives of more than 1,200 Auschwitz camp inmates.

Liam Neeson excelled as Schindler, Ralph Fiennes got under the skin playing psychotic SS man Amon Goeth, and the depictions of Plaszow’s concentration camp were graphic and horrifying. Spielberg was accused of sentimentalism, particularly over a scene in which inmates fear the worst when they’re herded into an Auschwitz shower room only to laugh and cry as water, rather than Zyklon B, streams from the shower heads. But it was a remarkable achievement for a mainstream Hollywood film, and surely only Spielberg could have made it happen

After that, the flood gates opened, as it were. With Life Is Beautiful (1997), Roberto Benigni offended some but won three Oscars playing an Italian bookseller who uses his imagination to shield his son from the horrors around him when they’re sent to a concentration camp. Similar themes were explored in Jakob The Liar (1999), a remake of a 1970s German film. Robin Williams plays Jakob, a shopkeeper in a Polish-Jewish ghetto who decides to lift the spirits of his neighbours by relating optimistic messages of the war’s progress he claims to have heard on a hidden radio.

As a child, Roman Polanski survived the Nazi occupation in just such a ghetto and used his experiences to magnificently colour his fine 2002 film The Pianist, which was based on the life of Polish-Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman.

The daily indignities of camp life were well captured by The Counterfeiters (2007), which starred Karl Markovics as a Jewish forger put to work by the Nazis, and by Son Of Saul (2015), where Geza Rohrig played an Auschwitz sonderkommando who’s going through the possessions of the dead when he comes across his son’s body.

But, perhaps inevitably, it’s documentaries that have provided the most powerful insights into this dreadful episode, humanity’s nadir. Marcel Ophuls’ 1969 documentary The Sorrow And The Pity ruffled feathers in a country not keen on closely inspecting its wartime past. A slow masterpiece, it interviewed those who had witnessed and taken part in the Vichy government’s ‘raffle’, or rounding up of French Jews for deportation.

In 2014, a film partly made by Alfred Hitchcock, but shelved for decades, documented the unspeakable horrors that confronted the liberators of Bergen-Belsen. In Night Will Fall, British soldiers used bulldozers to push 1,300 rotting corpses into open graves and survivors described their experiences in the camp.

But the most significant film ever made about the camps was Shoah (1985), Claude Lanzmann’s meticulously researched, nine-hour documentary that interviewed survivors and perpetrators of the Jewish genocide. He made it, he said, so that no one would ever be able to deny that the Holocaust happened. But they still do.

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